Suicide bombing phenomenon

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

SUICIDE bombers have attacked London twice in the past month. Baghdad is the scene of such attacks on practically a daily basis. Yet not much is known about suicide bombers. It is only now that scholars have begun exploring this subject. This is a positive development because, on the basis of their research, these scholars are exploding many myths. Hopefully, they will succeed in educating and informing not only the people better about them but also the governments in the West.

The latest book on the subject to hit the market is Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism by Robert Pape, assistant professor at the University of Chicago. Pape has collected a storehouse of information on the 462 suicide bombers who made headlines by their successful missions from 1980 to 2004. By analyzing demographic data, the psychology of the terrorists and their ideological and political motives, Pape has drawn interesting and valid conclusions.

The most important point stressed by Pape is that “Islamic fundamentalism is not as closely associated with suicide terrorism as many people think.” For that matter, no faith is the driving force behind the young bombers who kill themselves in an attempt to inflict damage on those they perceive to be their enemies. Pape reminds us that the first suicide bombings in the late 20th century were carried out by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

They could hardly be described as having religion as the underlying cause of their daring, and to most people, senseless acts. The Tamils were mainly Hindus but the Tigers were secular and Marxist.

Here one may add that if one goes back into history, one would recall that suicide as a strategic weapon was first used in Europe in the Crusades by the Knights Templar in the 12th century and in the Belgian revolution by the Dutch in 1830. More recently, the Japanese kamikaze pilots employed suicidal tactics in the Second World War to attack American naval ships.

Hence it is wrong to describe suicidal bombings as having been invented by the Palestinians or the Islamist terrorists or the Iraqis. Others had already shown the way.

The second point Pape emphasizes is, “Suicide terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland — from Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Kashmir to the West Bank.” According to him, the more troops America stations abroad, the higher will be the incidence of suicide bombings against the US and its allies.

These are significant observations. They present a persuasive argument for the Bush administration to withdraw its troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and its bases in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia. Pape reassures the US that all will be well after that and he gives the example of Lebanon which experienced 41 suicide terrorist attacks in 1982- 86. They virtually ceased when the US and France withdrew their troops and Israel pulled back its forces to a narrow strip in southern Lebanon.

Pape is not wholly correct. Where suicide bombings have only a strategic motive with Islam being used to glorify the act of violence, suicide attacks will cease once the strategic goals are achieved. For instance, one can expect the Palestinian bombers to seek peace once Israel pulls out of the occupied territories. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Avishai Marqalit states that even though the language used by the Palestinian bombers is always distinctly Islamic, their motives are more complex, with revenge, anger and a sense of injustice being the driving force.

Thus Mahmoud Ahmad Marmash, a 21-year-old suicide bomber who blew himself up in Netanya in 2001, recorded his message before he undertook his mission. He said, “I want to avenge the blood of the Palestinians, especially the blood of the women, of the elderly, and of the children, and in particular the blood of the baby girl Iman Hejjo, whose death shook me to the core.” In a letter to his family he wrote, “God’s justice will prevail only in jihad and in blood and in corpses.”

But would this hold true in every case? Some suicide bombers have avowedly ideological aims because they have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they actually believe in jihad as a duty to kill others, especially Muslims, who they feel have “digressed from the straight path”. But we dismiss the perpetration of these acts by arguing that people who kill other Muslims are not Muslims. Fatwas have been issued by scholars and ulema as well as muftis from across the Islamic world denouncing suicide bombings as the product of a fanatical interpretation of Islam and stating that extremism has no relevance to the religion.

Even public opinion in many Muslim countries does not approve of suicide bombings. Washington’s Pew Centre gives data on the public support for suicide bombings in Muslim countries. This has visibly decreased in many societies — in Pakistan it is down from 30 per cent in 2003 to 20 per cent in 2005 — even though confidence in Osama bin Laden has gone up from 40 to 50 per cent in the same period. The Osama factor could be explained by the rise in anti-American sentiments in the country. However, Robert Pape’s thesis hardly applies to the suicide bombings in Pakistan.

The suicide bombers who have exploded themselves along with their devices in the various Shia mosques and imambargahs are hardly attempting to get foreign occupation vacated. Moreover, many of the terrorists recruited by various Islamist groups, as reported by Amir Mir in his book The True Face of Jihadis, speak of being inspired by visions of paradise in their jihad. Adopting a monolithic fundamentalist view, they consider other sects in the Islamic fold as apostates.

This phenomenon is explained by Ziauddin Sardar’s thesis. The author of Desperately Seeking Paradise, he writes in an article in the New Statesman, the general reaction to the terrorist attacks is that they are the acts of pathologically mad people and Islam has nothing to do with it as it does not preach violence.

But Sardar insists that “Islam has everything to do with it… It is true that a vast majority of Muslims abhor violence and terrorism, and that the Quran and various schools of Islamic law forbid the killing of innocent civilians. It is true, as the vast majority of Muslims believe, that the main message of Islam is peace.

Nevertheless, it is false to assume that the Quran and Islamic law cannot be used to justify barbaric acts. The terrorists are the product of a specific mindset that has deep roots in Islamic history. They are nourished by an Islamic tradition that is intrinsically inhuman and violent in its rhetoric, thought and practice.

“They are provided solace and spiritual comfort by scholars who use the Quran and Islamic law to justify their actions and fan the hatred.”

This thought-provoking observation gives rise to the key question, how is this extremism, which, according to scholars, is an offshoot of the Kharijite school of thought, to be stemmed? One cannot deny the existence of Muslims who are intolerant and prone to resort to violence, since they claim that the Quran and the Shariah confirm their beliefs. It is up to the mainstream Muslims themselves to prove that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance.

What we have before us is “a struggle for Islam’s soul” (again quoting Sardar) and in this struggle the common man in Muslim countries have a role to play. He must come forward to marginalize the extremists by boycotting their organizations, their sermons and their way of thinking. The moderates and the enlightened sections will have to stand up and be counted.

There are many who are speaking out against the extremists but they are secular in approach and do not confront the militants on their own turf. As for the government, which calls itself enlightened, and whose duty it is to provide protection to the rational section of society, it turns the other way and allows the extremists to have the upper hand because that suits those at the helm.